One suspects in the future, when people talk about The Cloverfield Paradox, they may wonder if the title was intentionally ironic. The paradox of Julius Onah’s picture doesn’t lie in the alternate realities or particle accelerators in space that its plot propagates, rather in quite how unsuccessfully a promising spec script was ported into the burgeoning Cloverfield universe, hashed up, delayed, re-written, re-shot, and then thrown onto Netflix after the Super Bowl with, literally, around two hours notice. That story is undoubtedly more remarkable than anything in the film itself.
Let’s backtrack. In early 2008, JJ Abrams’ production house Bad Robot dropped, equally out of nowhere, the original Cloverfield. Directed by friend and collaborator Matt Reeves, who has since gone on to make quite the name for himself with the Dawn and War For the Planet of the Apes (and potentially soon The Batman), Cloverfield took everyone by surprise. Abrams, fresh off huge TV success with Lost and breaking into cinema with Mission Impossible III, managed to fuse together the en vogue found footage sub-genre with a modern day, Hollywood take on Toho, reimagining a Godzilla-esque monster ramping through New York for a post-911, burgeoning social media American audience. Punchy, frothy and deft, Cloverfield just *worked*.
Understandably, it also left people wanting more. Abrams & Reeves left just enough clues as to a wider universe to make fans salivate; a blink and you’ll miss it (literally) suggestion the monster came from outer space, for one thing. The point of that story didn’t involve answers—it was about average Joe characters thrown into a scenario equivalent to a terrorist attack, essentially—but the idea answers may point to a broader mythology left many hoping Abrams and his collaborators would follow it up. Though it took almost a decade, in 2016, again almost out of nowhere, 10 Cloverfield Lane arrived in cinemas with a more recognisable cast (including a great John Goodman performance) and a narrative which made one thing clear: the Cloverfield universe was playing by different rules.
10 Cloverfield Lane was set almost entirely in a well-stocked underground bunker inside which a somewhat eccentric white man protects himself from the darkness outside. Parallels to Lost and the saga of the Hatch would not be lost on many, given Abrams’ involvement, but it cemented the fact Abrams didn’t want the Cloverfield story to be a traditional cinematic universe of sequels telling similar, or indeed the same, story. 10 Cloverfield Lane, much like Paradox, didn’t even start as a Cloverfield movie, itself a spec-script from Josh Campbell & Matt Steucken called ‘The Cellar’, which would be bought by Bad Robot and re-tooled into a picture Abrams always hesitated to even describe as a sequel at all:
“This script came in and had an incredibly strong central conceit. It was a very powerful Twilight Zone idea. We began developing the story, and we came upon some things where it became clear to us, that we were in a very interesting place, because the story was wholly original, a very different situation, different characters from anything we’ve done. But the spirit of it, the genre of it, the heart of it, the fear factor, the comedy factor, the weirdness factor — there were so many elements that felt like the DNA of this story were of the same place that Cloverfield was born out of. It just became clear that as we were working on the movie, this could be something that is not the sequel that anyone might expect. It’s not the continuation of the story that people might think of, but it was so clearly associated. There was such a clear Venn diagram of these two things, it felt like if we were literal about connections to the first movie but in no way that people might expect us to be, it could be it’s own thing. We very intentionally didn’t call this movie Cloverfield 2, but we realized that there was enough of a connection, and the movie was good enough that it warranted this association in a way that we think is justified and exciting.”
That reference to The Twilight Zone is telling because that cuts to the heart of what Abrams realised he wanted to do with this franchise – essentially create a cinematic anthology series. For all of the blossoming cinematic universes from Marvel through to Star Wars and who knows what in-between, this approach still remains relatively untapped cinematic territory – telling distinct, seemingly un-connected tales as part of a broader universe with tangential elements tethering each of them together, potentially not in the same era whatsoever. Indeed if you look at the three Cloverfield pictures, 10 Cloverfield Lane almost certainly takes place after the events of Paradox. The first Cloverfield is perhaps more a narrative consequence of some of the ideas Paradox puts in play. Reputedly the fourth Cloverfield movie, Overlord, will be set during World War Two.
There is a strong possibility this may subsequently change, as Paradox itself changed. Much as 10 Cloverfield Lane appears to have been a relatively smooth transition from unconnected spec script into a taut, Hitchcockian, claustrophobic thriller which happens to have a few monsters pop up at the end, the same potentially cannot be said for Paradox, which came about as part of a very similar design. Writer Oren Uziel, who gets sole teleplay credit on Paradox but shares story credit with Doug Jung (a Bad Robot favourite now after helping write Star Trek Beyond on a tight time-frame with Simon Pegg after Roberto Orci was booted from the project), originally developed a script known as God Particle, which the film was known as up until around this time last year:
“It was written before 10 Cloverfield Lane and the expanded Cloverfield universe even existed as a thing. It was a spec that I wrote probably a year or so after Shimmer Lake, so it definitely existed as its own science-fiction. And then after years of, you know how scripts kind of hang around—people like them but for whatever reason they decided to make it and then suddenly everything fell into place with J.J. [Abrams], Bad Robot, and Paramount. I don’t know exactly when it became a Cloverfield movie, but I suspect in this current market where it’s just harder and harder to market an original movie of any kind, a science-fiction movie in particular, but I think everyone just knew if it fits—and it does—into that Cloverfield world, it should, and it can only help.”
‘God Particle’ was originally announced with a very intriguing conceit, which only became more fascinating when it was discovered to be the next tether to the growing Cloverfield universe. It felt like Abrams and Bad Robot were building toward points of revelation based on what the first two films had depicted – the apocalyptic destruction of America, maybe the world, by monsters who seemingly were from outer space. How would a film described as “a team of astronauts on a mission who make a terrifying discovery that challenges all they know about the fabric of reality, as they desperately fight for survival”, link to the established Cloverfield universe so far? Would it reveal the origin of the alien monsters? What connection, given the title, would it have to the ‘Higgs-Boson’ particle believed to help explain the very creation of the universe?
These were utterly tantalising questions and given the talent involved, the omens looked as good, if not better, as those for 10 Cloverfield Lane. A burgeoning up and coming director in Onah, and an international cast filled with, if not A-listers, then recognisable and strong character actors – Daniel Bruhl, Zhang Ziyi, Chris O’Dowd, Elizabeth Debicki & David Oyelowo to name a few. Then everything started to grow more nebulous, following the announcement it would fit in the Cloverfield universe. First the February 2017 debut was shunted to the Fall, before the ‘God Particle’ title was axed. Later came another debut shunt to early 2018, then April 2018, before disappearing from the Paramount schedules entirely. Rumours flew about there wouldn’t be a theatrical release. These could only be worrying signs. Why wouldn’t a studio want to promote a Cloverfield movie to the hilt?
The Cloverfield Paradox, as a piece, clearly answers that question. Whatever happened between commissioning Uziel’s script and getting a picture together, something went almost catastrophically wrong. You can see it all over the movie, and Uziel’s own words on the retro-fitting his script took are perhaps prophetically telling:
“We rewrote during production, but I’m not sure what it means to be part of the expanded Cloverfield universe, other than knowing what kind of quality and feel you’re gonna get from something that’s coming out of Bad Robot and J.J. It just sort of helps to give an understanding of like, ‘Okay I understand what type of movie this is gonna be.’ As far as specifics, I don’t think there is one specific thread that makes it a Cloverfield movie, I guess.”
There you have it, in many ways. The Cloverfield Paradox was hacked to bits during production to the point one wonders if there is all that much left of ‘God Particle’, Uziel’s original script. Certainly, despite the presence of a particle accelerator on the space station, there is utterly no trace or even mention of the particle or any kind of connection to the story. Threads of what was changed exist across the entire film however – you can tell the space station was originally called Helios because uniforms display the insignia in scenes presumably shot before they decided it was called (the much clunkier) Cloverfield Station; plot elements and scenes make no sense out of context, such a bizarre moment a football table starts shaking as if controlled by an unseen, elemental force on the station… which then makes no appearance. That’s just one example of many.
Seeping from every pore are suggestions ideas were changed, compromised, or hastily re-shot and re-written. Script elements such as O’Dowd’s bizarre detached arm after getting it trapped in some kind of dimension undulating bulkhead (despite the fact no other dimension warping stuff happens, beyond Debicki’s character entrance), which then leads to a key mechanical component inexplicably lying inside a crewman who just died when thousands of worms exploded out of his mouth… no, I’m not making any of this up. If Uziel did write this, you genuinely sense the concept of the ‘god particle’ which was removed to help the piece become a much clearer, more homogenised thriller (and possibly to save money), would have explained in some way the stranger, dimensional weirdness Onah’s film still throws at us. Here, it all just makes no sense. It makes cult horror Event Horizon’s script read like David Mamet.
None of the characters, despite the wealth of acting talent here, have anything to do of interest. Gugu Mbatha-Raw is the focal point as Ava Hamilton, a scientist mourning the death of her children following a fire she feels responsible for, and the script works hard to try and wring the emotion out of that for all it’s worth, but everyone else is simply there to spout exposition/be funny (or try to)/be an asshole/be evil and that’s it. None of them feel like real characters simply because they are thrown into one inexplicable situation after the next without any sense of logical plot progression. You should care when, spoiling nothing, some of them start to die, but the chances are you won’t.
The whole endeavour is of course another picture attempting to shoot a warning across our bow about the forsaking of our planet, given the alternate Earth which these characters discover has descended into war-like chaos following the lack of energy and resources left (even though we never see it), and Ava & crew realise they have to try and correct their mistake if they want to do as they planned, and use the particle energy (called the Shepherd) to save their own world. Got it. Understood. Nothing particularly new and, honestly, nothing we’re made to feel. The sub-plot involving Ava’s husband on Earth trying to protect a lost young girl is so arbitrary as to be utterly pointless. At no point is any attempt made to truly show us what these people are trying to prevent.
Yet the worst crime of Paradox, the worst crime of all, is that it barely has anything which would constitute a monster. Now, this isn’t automatically a cross in the box. 10 Cloverfield Lane if anything may have benefited by not throwing Mary Elizabeth Winstead into the path of gribblies at the final furlong, but that’s because it had a good enough monster in Goodman’s Howard Stambler. Paradox doesn’t come close to that same achievement with its ultimate villain, though given the actor involved and what they’re capable of, they could have achieved it with the right structure and development. Nonetheless, Paradox *needed* more threat, more alien weirdness, and perhaps more of a direct connection to what got people interested in Cloverfield in the first place – monsters.
This is where JJ Abrams and his creatives have, perhaps, slightly missed the point. Their anthology plan, as discussed above, is admirable and timely. Anthologies are in the midst of a popular resurgence on the small screen – Ryan Murphy’s stable of American Horror and Crime Stories (and now Feud), Black Mirror which increasingly resembles the production value of a movie and has tapped powerfully into the public consciousness, the adaptation of podcast Lore by Amazon, and even on British TV the enduring popularity and critical respect for the BBC’s Inside No. 9. Thanks to the rise of streaming services, binge watching and a move away from the older methods of TV studio production, people are more open to contained storytelling akin to what Rod Serling was doing sixty years ago. There is no reason with the right approach, a cinematic franchise couldn’t do the same.
Cloverfield as an anthological franchise still has the opportunity to correct the strip-mining that took place on Paradox for Overlord or any future pictures, but it needs to return to the core conceit which propped it up and stop dancing around the mythology it has created. Intriguingly, early on in Paradox, Donal Logue cameos as a fringe conspiracy theorist author named Dr. Mark Stambler (brother of Howard from 10 Cloverfield Lane?), who wrote a book called ‘The Cloverfield Paradox’ in which he believes the Shepherd will open up alternate realities and dimensions which will unleash ‘demons’ on Earth in the past, present and future. Though couched in religious symbology (perhaps a holdover from Uziel’s original script), his warnings are seemingly born out, and could account for what crashes near New York in 2007 (events of the first movie) and why these monsters appear on Earth when Ava & Schmidt arrive at the end of Paradox, and have later spread across the world in the events of Lane.
These are guesses, however, and while that’s part of the enjoyment about a shared universe being steadily unveiled by Abrams with, almost certainly with him, a long-term plan of some loose kind, the connectives need to be stronger, because they weren’t with Paradox. And honestly, were it not a Cloverfield movie, there would be no reason to recommend it given it is, at best, an average and misguided, lukewarm science-fiction movie with no new ideas and an abundance of concepts which don’t fit together and, in some cases, don’t go anywhere at all. You can enormously see the join.
Perhaps part of the reason, in the end, comes down to Paramount. Boasting a new man in charge, they most recently made deals with Netflix to premiere Alex Garland’s science-fiction movie Annihilation (adapted from the intensely weird Jeff Vandermeer novel) outside of the US, a move which has disappointed many looking forward to a theatrical release. Ultimately, throwing Paradox onto Netflix may have done it a favour, given it’s really not particularly cinematic and feels unformed, but the reality is the film was meant to cost $5 million and ended up costing $40, placing it in a no-go nether-zone of unprofitability for studios. In their eyes, you either make a film for nothing and hit big, or spend a fortune and hit bigger. Abrams would have been better off making a Cloverfield TV show on that budget.
The Cloverfield Paradox, therefore, might have caused a buzz with its surprise premiere, but don’t indict it for being part of the Netflix problem of removing the cinematic experience. Indict it because it’s just not good, and hopefully will not signal the death knell of one of Hollywood’s more intriguing and elastic cinematic universes.